Progressively Speaking: What does Judaism say about the right to protect oneself
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Progressively Speaking: What does Judaism say about the right to protect oneself

In light of recent mass shootings in the USA, Rabbi Danny Rich offers a Liberal Jewish response

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside Ned Peppers bar following a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. A masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in the popular entertainment district in Dayton, killing several people, including his sister, and wounding dozens before he was quickly slain by police, officials said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside Ned Peppers bar following a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. A masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in the popular entertainment district in Dayton, killing several people, including his sister, and wounding dozens before he was quickly slain by police, officials said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In light of American mass shootings, what does Judaism say about the right to protect oneself?

Two more tragic mass shootings in America inevitably raise questions over what’s appropriate when it comes to self-defence.

Judaism sanctifies human life, as Mishnah Sanhedrin affirms: “Whoever destroys a single human life is considered by Scripture as if they had destroyed the whole world, and who saves a single life is considered as if they had saved the whole world.”

Guns, of course, are a relatively modern invention, but weapons might not be here forever, as reflected in the hope of Isaiah (2:4): “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition is not a pacifist one and our scriptures are replete with examples relating to the taking of a human life — and yet is still not considered murder.

Putting aside the concept of war itself (which may or may not be defensive), a Jew is permitted to kill another who intends to kill — and is obligated to go to the defence of another, in accord with Leviticus 19: 16, that one should not “stand idly by”.

There is a brief discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 63a) which prohibits the carrying of weapons on Shabbat. In the debate, the issue is raised about that which is necessary and that which is merely ornamental.

In modern times, we should consider whether the owning and/or carrying of a gun has become a symbolic demonstration of the right to do so, or whether there is a real threat to which the bearer could be required to respond.

Modern democratic states require an amount of firearm power to counter genuine threats of terrorism and crime.

But perhaps the Government and people of the United States might engage in an honest debate over whether “the right to bear arms” is now too costly, given the number of individual and mass shootings that have occurred.

Micah (4:4) speaks of a time when everyone “will all sit under the vine and the fig tree and no one will make them afraid”.

How best could we achieve such a society?

  • Rabbi Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism
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